The Macintosh is at a new crossroads

The death of the Thunderbolt Display is one more sign of a major change coming to the Mac's peripheral support

decision person at crossroads
Credit: Thinkstock

Late last week, Apple announced it has discontinued its Thunderbolt Display, a once-groundbreaking 27-inch monitor that functioned not only as a monitor but as a hub for MacBooks and other Macs attached to it.

The Thunderbolt Display, which hadn't been updated since 2011, epitomized Apple's Mac strategy at the time of providing high-capacity, high-speed peripheral connections to set Macs apart from the pokey peripheral buses then common on PCs. The Mac was for power users; the PC was not.

But Apple has started to rethink the Mac, making the Thunderbolt Display a poor fit for the future Mac.

It's clear from several peripherals-related moves that the Mac is at a crossroads. The signs suggest that Apple is about to push users away from local and direct-connected peripherals to cloud and wireless ones.

Peripheral support is a good gauge of a platform's direction. Right now, Apple's peripheral support is muddled, with Thunderbolt, USB-3, and MiniDispay Port (via the Thunderbolt connector) standard on all Macs except the 12-inch MacBook , which was released last year and supports just USB-C. But none of Apple's Macs have gotten significant peripheral-related hardware updates in years beyond the move -- which doesn't affect existing peripherals -- from Thunderbolt 1 to Thunderbolt 2 and from USB 2 to USB 3.

Before the appearance of USB-C, the last major switch in Apple peripheral support was dropping FireWire ports in 2012, a year after Thunderbolt's debut. Will USB-C now replace Thunderbolt across the Mac product line? The end of the Thunderbolt Display certainly suggests so, especially since Apple never bothered to provide a way to connect the 12-inch MacBook to the Thunderbolt Display, essentially requiring MacBook owners to use a non-Apple monitor with that laptop.

Dropping Thunderbolt in favor of USB-C, however, will impose a huge cost on more advanced users. Apple shielded such users from the huge switching cost to Thunderbolt storage (which to this day remains very expensive) thanks to Apple's Thunderbolt-to-FireWire adapter. So far, Apple has not provided a similar migration from Thunderbolt to USB-C.

It hasn't had to, of course, because the MacBook is actually a low-performing device, meant to be an iPad replacement more than a Mac replacement. But if Apple moves USB-C into its more capable MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and iMac lines, navigating that peripheral transition could get quite expensive.

Yes, many people use cheaper USB drives for backup and secondary storage, but even with USB 3 buses, the available bandwidth quickly gets consumed as you add more devices to the Mac. It's not clear yet if USB-C's architecture will overcome that problem.

Apple's USB-C dongles don't support many peripherals, which is fine for the underpowered MacBook's intended use as a supplemental Mac on the go. For users of more capable Macs, once they have a USB-C port, Other World Computing has a USB-C dock that supports USB 3, gigabit Ethernet, and HDMI ports that, like its similar Thunderbolt dock, could provide the kind of high-capacity docking that the Thunderbolt Display had provided.

But maybe Apple doesn't want you to use wired peripherals at all. The MacBook only has USB-C and an audio jack, and the now-Retina-only MacBook Pros come only with SSD drives, limiting their onboard storage capacity to 512GB, a real drop from the 1TB previously available via mechanical drives.

The forthcoming MacOS Sierra urges you to store your documents and images all in iCloud, and Apple has long offered its Time Capsule network backup drive.

I see a pattern here: Store your documents in iCloud or other cloud service (and pay a monthly fee for that capacity), back up and print over Wi-Fi, use Bluetooth input peripherals such as mouse and keyboard, and don't bother with a large monitor if you have a Mac laptop and its high-res Retina screen.

That might work for some users, but it won't work for power users, especially those in Apple's areas of strength: video editing, graphics arts, and application development. They need big screens and big, fast storage. Can you imagine a Wi-Fi network handling the bandwidth needs for such a group of users? I can't.

So, Apple may end up splitting the Mac lineup as it somewhat began to do with the Mac Pro, which also hasn't been updated in three years: Have a pricey, high-end Mac line that has the fastest buses, fastest processors, and highest storage capacity, as well as a cloud- and wireless-centered line of lightweight Macs that don't.

The Mac Pro, if it ever gets updated, and the MacBook would represent the two poles of that new Mac lineup. Presumably, the 27-inch iMac and the 15-inch MacBook Pros would join that power-user pole. The MacBook Airs, MacBook, and Mac Mini would join the lightweight pole.

The question would be where the 21-inch iMac and 13-inch MacBook Pro align -- to one of those poles or in some intermediate space where they get at least a couple USB-C ports so they can connect through dongles and/or a dock, to a mix of local and network/cloud resources?

Or maybe Apple blows up those existing categories and does something even more radical to it lineup. Until Apple says, we won't know for sure.

But it's clear -- based on the combination of limited changes to recent Macs, the death of the Thunderbolt Display, the radical simplification in the MacBook, and the bias to cloud connectivity in MacOS Sierra -- that something major is in the works for the Mac.

What's unclear is whether Apple is preparing the Mac for a slow, PC-like decline in favor of iOS devices (not that iPad are doing that great) or seeking to reinvent the Mac once again to reinvent and revitalize the PC platform.

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